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March 20, 2021

AHA Examines ‘Care for Our Common Home’ on Awareness Day

On Awareness Day 2021, members of the Academy of the Holy Angels community paused to consider “Care for Our Common Home.” AHA Director of Mission and Ministry Joan Connelly selected the theme for this webinar from Pope Francis’ 2015 letter to the world. His message underscores the reality that the earth’s gifts belong to everyone.


Keynote speakers included CJ Sivulka (AHA ’14) of the Environmental Defense Fund, and members of Ms. Jennifer Cucchisi’s International Studies class, who highlighted climate change. Tamara Kim, AHA Class of ‘21, discussed her environmental non-profit, and English teacher/Green Action Team Moderator Sean Hickey spoke about reducing our consumption of animal products. The program included videos of talks by environmental activist Greta Thunberg, a discussion of climate change by scientist Bill Nye, and Selina Leem. Leem’s emotional presentation shed light on her life in the Marshall Islands, where her family’s land is sinking due to rising sea levels, and being contaminated by a leak from a nuclear weapons test.


Sivulka attended the George Washington University, where she received her bachelor’s degree in environmental science, sustainability, and communications. She completed her master’s degree in environmental policy at GW and landed her first job at the Environmental Defense Fund, an environmental advocacy group. In her new role as project manager on EDF’s health team, she uses science and research to strengthen laws and policies that tackle pollution and toxic chemicals. Her goal is for everyone, especially the most vulnerable, to live healthier lives.


Sivulka focused on the intersections of equity and the environment. She noted that many lower income people of color breathe in a disproportionate amount of pollution, and those who live near sources of air pollution suffer more cases of asthma. According to Sivulka, 7,000 deaths could be prevented each year if the air were cleaner.


She discussed “Sacrifice Zones,” where people are forced to live in proximity to pollution sources. Her examples included Flint, Michigan, where lead and e. coli were prevalent in the river water delivered to 100,000 black residents; and Louisiana’s Cancer Alley, an area with oil refineries and plastics plants, where COVID-19 rates soared. She also showed a video that detailed the toxic waste dumping and oil spills in indigenous communities.


She pointed out that zip code is the most powerful predictor of health, and moving is not always possible. The environmental justice movement is a social justice movement, she said.


Sivulka discussed the need to strengthen existing laws, vote, and support a “green” economy that uplifts BIPOC (black, indigenous, and people of color) communities.


Awareness Day participants then joined breakout rooms for group discussions. Facilitator Carol Fay, who heads the AHA Religious Studies Department, called on each group.


Emma Yale considered Sivulka’s talk a reality check. Yale was surprised to learn that, while 13% of the country’s population is black, nearly 50% of the black population lives in areas that are plagued by environmental issue. She also noted the lack of regard for indigenous lands.


Victoria Thomas said that being able to see the low quality of the water in Flint was eye-opening. Her group talked about how money and profit drive people to find cheaper solutions, such as taking water from the Flint River, and the result is disproportionate suffering. Thomas tied the water issue to historical examples of companies bullying each other. She said people gained wealth from oil and tobacco, which led to a concentration of power in large companies and less control among smaller companies.


Keelin Robbins’ group discussed how doctors can have biases against people of color. They also discussed real estate bias; workplace discrimination against people who have unfamiliar names; the over-policing of communities, and the disproportionate number of arrests for non-violent crimes; and the lack of laptops and internet access in less affluent communities.


Julia Fernandez spoke about the problems that followed Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico and hurt many people who lack financial means. Mia Chang said people have the ability to spread awareness and ask for change. Laura Carbo noted that buying eco-friendly items can help.

In the Q&A, Sivulka urged the students to vote with their wallets by purchasing products from ethical companies. She also pointed to positive change she has seen in Washington, D.C. after a five cent tax on plastic bags was instituted. According to Sivulka, plastic bag waste is now down 80%. In a final word of advice, she told students to pursue many internships in college.


“The experience is helpful and you get to talk with mentors to create a path to where you want to go,” the speaker added.

Cucchisi’s students presented “Let’s Leave the Earth Better Than We Found It.” Jasmin Prophete (AHA ’20) contributed to this program, which included Bill Nye’s video about climate change due to humans’ increased consumption of natural resources. Nye explained that the increased release of greenhouse gases has trapped heat radiated by the sun. Oceans absorb the heat, which leads to acidification of undersea habitats. The devastation of these habitats affect the creatures that live there, and the 1 billion people who rely on the ocean for food. In addition, melting glaciers lead to flooding, and reduced sea ice impacts polar bears and penguins.


Nye said that climate change is triggering extreme weather events, such as heat waves, droughts, floods, and severe storms. Some ways to help include recycling, turning off electronic devices that are not in use, eating less meat, eating more local produce, and walking rather than driving.

AHA senior Tamara Kim appeared in a video that highlighted her non-profit, Save Your Planet. Kim, who wants to work toward clean energy solutions, plans to major in environmental science in college. She noted that AHA is taking positive steps by offering sustainable options, such as compostable cafeteria containers. She recommends less meat consumption, and urges people to reduce, reuse, and recycle.


Awareness Day participants also used the Ecological Footprint Calculator to assess their carbon footprint. Together, they considered solutions that included eating fewer processed foods, and even going vegan. Mr. Hickey noted that the rainforests are being cleared to support the meat industry and the production of palm oil used in processed products. Green ideas also included turning off lights that are not being used, saving water by taking shorter showers, not letting cars idle, and buying only what you need.


Together, participants realized that all of our actions have cumulative effects.


Founded by the School Sisters of Notre Dame in 1879, the Academy of the Holy Angels is the oldest private girls’ school in Bergen County. While AHA is steeped in Catholic tradition, this prestigious high school serves young women from a broad spectrum of cultural and religious backgrounds. Over time, thousands of women have passed through AHA’s portals. Many go on to study at some of the nation’s best universities, earning high-ranking positions in medicine, government, law, education, public service, business, arts, and athletics. The Academy’s current leaders continue to further the SSND mission to provide each student with the tools she needs to reach the fullness of her potential—spiritually, intellectually, socially, and physically, by offering a first-rate education in a nurturing environment where equal importance is placed on academic excellence, character development, moral integrity, and service to others.